Can the terminally ill qualify for life insurance?

Dignity, but no indemnity

Can the terminally ill count on life insurance in cases of assisted death?

(Illustration by Dan Page)

(Illustration by Dan Page)

The new Supreme Court ruling striking down the ban preventing physicians from helping terminally ill adults end their lives may offer those individuals some peace, but it opens new questions as well. One as yet unresolved issue is whether life insurers will honour policies if a death was assisted by an MD.

Terminally ill patients with policies older than two years have no reason to be concerned, but it’s another matter for those with policies which fall below that threshold, says Paul Trudelle, a partner at Hull & Hull LLP who closely follows this issue. He explains that most policies contain a provision that if a suicide, medically assisted or otherwise, occurs within two years of purchasing the policy then beneficiaries won’t receive anything from the insurance.

It’s unlikely that many patients will end up in such a situation, as buying life insurance after being diagnosed with a terminal illness would be almost impossible. Still, in Oregon, for instance, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, the median time between the first request for physician assistance and death is 43 weeks, so it is possible that insurance could be purchased before a diagnosis and death could occur in less than two years.

While Canada has yet to deal with this issue, all three U.S. states that have legalized assisted suicide have put rules in place requiring insurance firms to settle policies of physician-assisted suicides even if the death occurs less than two years after purchasing the policy. In those cases, the law recognizes that physicians are ending the suffering of a terminally ill person who would have died regardless.

Still, no one really knows what will happen for such policy holders in Canada. “This hasn’t really been considered,” says Frank Zinatelli, general counsel for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association. It will really depend on how the legislation on this subject is written and the rules put in place by the insurance industry, he says.

If the debate on physician-assisted suicide does anything, it stresses the importance of having a will in place and life insurance. “It’s a great discussion point for all of us,” says Trudelle.